A few years ago I was in town shopping, and stopped at the discount clothing store to replace my worn sports-type bras that I wore for working in the garden, fields or barns. They ware out pretty quickly, and like everything else I purchase new, I am conflicted between keeping within my modest budget, and purchasing socially-responsible goods, which are often, for good reason, more expensive. The simple cotton bras and underwear I was eyeing, and deliberating over, were made in Bangladesh. Immediately I could imagine the young girls and older women, working long days in poor conditions for little pay to make these articles. And then, I could see the fields of Monsanto cotton, being grown all over the Indian countryside as they hit the peak, and subsequent collapse, of their own "green revolution" in chemical farming. These fields not only poison the ground, and destroy the ecology, but also make the poorly-paid cotton pickers ill with skin diseases and cancer. I put the neatly wrapped and innocent-looking packet down.
Having a sewing machine, and knitting needles at my use, I often make certain articles of our clothing, and buy most everything else second-hand. Bras and underwear were pretty much the only things I bought new, but had never thought of making at home. I could see no reason why I shouldn't be able to make these simple articles, and I could easily see that by making them at home, it would help to resolve the issue of purchasing socially and environmentally responsible goods within a limited budget. Everything that we can produce from home, leaves more in the budget to shop responsibly for what we cannot produce, or have not yet challenged ourselves to produce. There are of course "foods" like coffee, black tea, chocolate, cinnamon that will not grow in our latitude without a heated greenhouse, but which can be easily purchased, for a slight premium, fairly-traded, organic, shade-grown and slave-free. Then there are purchases like the pressure canner, grain mill, generator, etc which we cannot easily produce from home, without something like a community workshop, but with enough room in the budget we can at least purchase a high-quality product that will last a life-time (or at least a long-time). This is my motivation to make as many things at home as I possibly can, adding more and more each year as I get comfortable with newly acquired skills. Even if making it myself will only save us $30 a year, something like vinegar or herbal teas, this $30 here and there will make the difference between buying a year's supply of discount brand cocoa powder, which was likely produced with slave labor in the Ivory Coast, or buying slave-free organic cocoa powder. And that makes a real difference.
Besides, the bras and underwear I have made are incomparably more comfortable, more durable, and more beautiful than those I would have bought. The plain cotton ones, overlooking social and environmental issues, make me feel poor when I wear them. My hand-made bras and underwear are luxurious by comparison, and like the good food on our table, adds a richness and quality to our lives.
I have experimented with a few prototypes and designs, I was drawn to knitting the undergarments, and found a few patterns on-line, that I have since modified and adapted to my own design. This last week or two I have finally made two bras, based on a simple design, that I am thrilled with, and will share. I am going to tackle the underwear next, I have knit a few using a cotton yarn, and am almost happy with the result. But I am also trying a few simply made on the sewing machine. I will post those results when I am happy with the design.
These bras are knitted without seams, on straight needles size 4.5cm, US size 7, for the purple one, and 3.5cm, US size 4, for the blue one, as the blue yarn is much thinner. For best results you will need access to a sewing machine, the backing band could be sewn by hand, but it would be more difficult. With a sewing machine you can hold a consistent tension between the stretchable knitted fabric and the woven backing. The most useful way to describe the design, is to give measurements, and allow you to work out the number of stitches based upon the gauge of the yarn and needles you choose. Any basic knitting instructions in a book or on a website would tell you how to find the gauge (stitches per inch), if you are a beginning knitter. Do not be intimidated, it is very simple. Once you have your gauge, multiply the number of stitches per inch by the given measurement. If your gauge is 6 stitches per inch, and the measurement is 6", then knit 36 stitches in a row.
I made the purple one first, with the buttons in front it opens enough to put on over my head, but I recommend the design of the blue one, with button closures in the back. The purple one is knitted in garter stitch, to save the trouble of blocking the finished piece, and because the yarn I chose was lumpy and thick, this is more of a cold-weather bra. It is warmer, and beneath thick tops and sweaters, the lumpy texture is invisible. The blue bra is knitted in stockinette stitch, with a soft thin yarn, and can be worn beneath clingy summer tops.
First measure your ribcage, just below your breasts. If you measure between 28-32 inches, you will be able to follow these directions closely, if you are outside of this range you will have to adjust the measurements accordingly. The final length of the knitted piece will be a few inches short of your ribcage measurement because when you sew on the backing band, you will lightly stretch the knitted fabric to match.
Cast on a number of stitches, in your gauge, that will give you 1 inch. I will give the instructions in stockinette stitch, but you can work it in any stitch you choose, adding a lace pattern or decorative edging. I slip the first stitch of every row to make a neat edge. The measurements given below are when the piece is held loosely, not stretched out. Knit until the piece reaches 4" long (for 28-30 ribcage), 4 1/4" (for 30-32 ribcage). Begin increasing one stitch, every row. Increase only on one edge of the piece so that the other edge remains straight. I increase with a yarn-over between the last two stitches on the RS of the work, and between the first two stitches on the WS of the work, knitting (or purling) into the back of the yarn-over so that it does not leave a hole in the piece. Increase until the piece reaches 5 1/2" wide (calculate the number of stitches in your gauge) for A-cup, 6" for B-cup, 6 1/2" for C-cup and so on. Continue to knit straight for 3". Begin deceasing one stitch every row, again on the same edge as the increases, until the piece reaches 3 1/2" wide (according to your gauge). Knit straight for 1 1/2" (28-30 ribcage), 2" (30-32 ribcage). Begin increase, and work in reverse order for the other cup. When you get back to your original number of stitches for 1", knit straight for 3 1/2" (28-30 ribcage) 3 3/4" (30-32 ribcage), then make two button-holes in a single row, one near the beginning and one near the end of the row. For example, knit 3 stitches, yarn over, knit two together. Knit until 5 stitches remain, knit two together, yarn over, knit 3 stitches. Finish final 1/2", and bind-off. Your finished piece should measure about 3" less than your ribcage measurement.
For the straps, knit I-cord, using 2mm, US size 1, double-pointed needles. You will need only two needles. Leaving a 6" tail, cast on three stitches, do not turn, simply slide the stitches (now on the left end of your right-hand needle) over to the right end of the same needle. Without turning, switch needles so that the stitches are in your left hand. Bring the yarn behind the work and knit into the first stitch, working across the row as usual. Slide and switch needles. Keep working until the cord reaches about 16" when stretched to full length, and bind off. Leave a 6" tail on the end. Make two straps. Attach to the middle of the cup in the front, and 3" from either end in the back. This cord will stretch a bit when it is first worn, and you will want it to be well fitted to your own shoulders since it is not adjustable. So when you attach the straps to the bra, keep track of your bound-off edge, attaching it to the back of the bra loosely, so that you will be able to make a final adjustment.
If you have knitted in stockinette, your piece will need to be blocked. When it is dry, sew on the backing band. For the backing band, take your ribcage measurement, and add 1/2" to make room for the button closure. Use any type of non-stretch material, woven fabric is best, a wide ribbon will work as well. If you need to hem the piece, do so now, so that it measures 1" wide, and the length of your ribcage + 1/2". Make wide hems at the ends to allow for the button-holes. I probably did a clumsy button-hole, there are more professional ways to make them I am sure, but I simply cut two small button-sized slits, matching the placement of the button-holes in the knitted piece, sewed around the edge of the holes, and trimmed the loose fringes inside the holes to make it neat. When your backing is ready, start by pinning the two ends in place, careful to match the button-holes. Then take the two ends in one hand, and stretch the knitted bra to meet the backing, and pin it in place in the middle. Then work around, pinning in between until there is one pin placed every 2", and the backing and bra match up. Now begin to sew, using a sewing needle specifically for knits if you have one. You should still have the loose tails of the straps hanging out, make sure not to sew these into the backing. Hold tension along the length of the bra as you sew, turn and sew along the other edge. Fix the buttons in place.
Now try the bra on, and test whether the straps are the right length. Do not leave them too loose, or the straps will slip off your shoulders. Test it by putting your finger under the strap at the top of your shoulder, and if you can easily lift the strap away, then detach the cord from the back, and work back as many rows as will give you the right fit. Make it just a little tighter than you think, and wear the bra for a few hours before you make any final adjustment. When you are satisfied with the fit, tie off your straps with a knot and work all ends in. Take note of any areas you would adjust to create your own custom pattern, for future use. Hand wash in warm water with mild detergent, dry flat.